Riddles from Dystopia: Clara’s Story

Before I came here I lived in a town called Specter, on the edge of the Blight. Like many of the faraway places in your stories, it is the last stop on a long road, where rolling plains and golden prairies give way to desert. Nothing grows beyond Specter, and at midday, if you face south and listen carefully, you can hear the ground fissure and the clay sizzle. It is a hard town, for hard people, and though I may seem like something else to you, I felt at home there.

We had no electricity in Specter, let alone a shard, and the climate was so unforgiving that even the rain was too hot to drink. Visitors were rare. When they did show up it was always by accident, usually from the north, and never for more than a few days. I remember them all, despite their transience; every face, every scar, every tensil, every tattoo. I remember every drink they ordered, every lash they batted. And I remember the stories they told.

The completeness of my memory is important because the story I am about to tell you is not my own, and its finer details – those that others might have forgotten, or failed to notice altogether — are its most revealing. It is the story of Specter’s last visitor, a breathless, sunburnt woman who came staggering out of the Blight one afternoon, pursued by vultures, until she tumbled through the batwing doors of our town’s only saloon, where it was our crepuscular habit to take sanctuary from our Common Enemy.

She stood in the door frame for a moment, haloed in sunlight. The buzzards rested their wings on the cracked pavement behind her, waiting politely. Her skeleton was visible under a thin layer of blistered skin, which was itself poorly concealed under the scraps of a once-white dress.

We were all stunned by the sight of the woman, unsure of what to say or do. For a long time no one moved. Eventually she coughed, spraying blood across the floor, and all at once we leapt to our feet and ushered her in and sat her down and poured water down her throat until she could stomach no more, at which point she waved us off and closed her eyes.

We thought she had died. But when the bartender approached with a wet towel and a bag of ice, the woman’s eyes flew open and she seized his arm.

“Put that ice in a glass and fill it with something strong,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Anything but gin.”

The bartender was about to object, but something in the woman’s gaze made him think twice. He disappeared behind the bar, returning a few moments later with a highball full of ice and rum.

“That’s better,” said the woman, and she took a deep, gradual drag from the glass. Her breathing steadied. The veins in her temples stopped pulsing.

“How long were you out there?” someone asked. Six or seven of us had gathered around her table.

“Three days, I think,” she croaked. “Not sure. Toward the middle of the first day I started hallucinating.”

We all exchanged terrified glances. Most of Specter’s laws were loose and unspoken, but the one everyone openly acknowledged and even recited was that citizens should spend no more than an hour in the Blight. Anything longer was dangerous. A full day was unthinkable; three days was beyond madness.

“How did you get there?” I asked her.

She shook her head. “You wouldn’t believe me,” she replied. “And anyway, it’s a long story.”

“You might be surprised,” I said, “at the things we would believe. This is an unusual town, and we have our own stories here.”

The woman lifted her eyes until they met my own. They were bleak and grey, and for the first time since arriving in Specter I felt cold.

“Very well, she said. “It will be good to hear my own voice again, in any case. Tell me, have any of you heard of a road called Route 14?”

No one had.

“It begins north of Upper Reach, and it runs through many strange places. Few have traveled it, and no one knows where it ends. I made it farther than most – farther than anyone I ever knew – to a place called Recursion Lake, which lies farther than Outpost, farther even than Midway Motel. There was a gold plaque in the road where it meets the outermost bank of Recursion Lake, and on it was inscribed the following poem:

No answers lie beneath this lake

Only depths of different kinds

Where plumbing pilgrims would be wise

To drown their bodies and save their minds.

“Just beyond the the plaque there was a row of abandoned canoes, and I rowed one of them to an island at the center of the lake. I traveled to the middle of that island and found another lake, which I crossed to another island. This went on for some time, from lake to island, island to lake, until I’d lost track of how deep I’d gone.

“I began to despair, to suspect that there was no way out of the loop. But then one night, after I’d dragged my canoe onto yet another island, I spotted a fire down the beach, perhaps half a mile. I hiked towards it and found a woman and her lover lying in the sand.

“The woman’s name was Tess, and her lover was Rain. Rain was dying when I met them.

“Perhaps Rain didn’t believe that she was dying. Many don’t, until the very end. But her breathing was shallow and her eyes were fastened to the night sky, as though there were something written on that celestial ceiling that only she could read. Her side was covered in bandages, and though the firelight danced over them, they were never any color but black.

“Her hair was as long as her lover’s, and it might have been as blonde, too, if it weren’t clotted with blood and caked in mud. If she uttered any last words, she did so before I arrived, for I never heard her speak.

“I would have offered to help if it weren’t so obvious that nothing could be done. Instead I sat with Tess as she squeezed her lover’s trembling hand, and I listened to her story. When it ended, Rain and fire expired together.

“‘At the center of the island is a lake,’ she began. ‘And in that lake there is an island. It is not like the islands you have visited so far. It is a strange, merciless place, governed by a dark, capricious sorcery untethered from order and logic. We arrived there three days ago by canoe, on a beach much like this one. Or, at least, three days have since passed on that island. I am not sure how many have passed in this place. But let us put aside the question of time, here. It hardly matters.

“‘The beach was, in retrospect, the only sane part of the island. It was broad, spanning perhaps thirty yards from surf to brush. There were palm trees at its limit, and we climbed them and plucked coconuts from their limbs and opened them with our knives and drank from them. We remarked upon how strange it was to find coconuts so far north, and wondered aloud what other marvels we might discover farther inland, where the hills rolled and the forest loomed.

“‘We made love on the beach, then swam in the lake and laid in the sun and feasted upon the pulp of the coconuts. We slept, then, and in our dreams we made love a second time. We might not have realized we were dreaming, so lucid and carnal were our reveries, except that we woke to the sound of something rustling in the hedges beyond the coconut trees. We snatched up our clothes and leapt to our feet, then searched the area for whatever had made the noise. Finding nothing, we dressed and collected our backpacks.

“‘”It was probably an armadillo,” suggested Rain.

“‘I nodded, feigning assent, but a chill ran down my spine as I imagined other possibilities. “Let’s go,” I suggested. “We’ll scout the island on foot, then come back for the canoe if we find another lake.”

“‘And so we left the beach, passing through high grass and gentle shrubs, until we came upon a path. It was underworn and overgrown and so riddled with potholes that the act of negotiating it was like some drunken game of hopscotch. But at least it was straight, and it scaled a hill without resorting to doglegs or switchbacks. We welcomed the path’s simplicity, preferring it to Route 14’s wild, meaningless arcs. Much later, though, I found myself wondering whether they were the same road. But let us put aside the question of space, now. It hardly matters.

“‘On the other side of the hill was a gentle valley, and at its center, much to our astonishment, was a small village. Yes, I can see that you are as surprised as we were –'”

And that you, too, are surprised.

“‘— but nevertheless it was there, with thatched roofs and cobblestone streets and wisps of smoke curling from chimneys, and from our perch atop the hill we could even see people milling about, and between gusts of wind we could hear their muffled voices. It was the first time since our passage through Outpost that we had encountered any form of society – of people dwelling together in a single, unmoving civilization. We bounded down the hill together, neither of us bothering to suppress her excitement.

“‘The little village was a primitive place, with no walls or gates. We strode into it unobstructed, arriving at what I know now was its center, where our unexpected appearance interrupted an argument between two of its denizens.

“‘”Hail, pilgrims,” said a man with a long beard and a bionic eye. “Welcome to Nadir, where Recursion Lake’s visitors are most often broken. My name is Algo.” He extended a massive, gnarled hand.

“‘”Hello, sir,” said I, shaking it. “I am Tess, and this is Rain. We are pilgrims from Quantum Valley.”

“‘”Are you prepared to yield?” asked the woman with whom Algo had been arguing. She was young and mousey, with squinted grey eyes and the posture of a cashew.

“‘”Quiet, you,” said Algo, in a voice that may have been harsher than he intended. He turned back toward us and continued, smiling. “My apologies for Ithma. She gave up her own quest long ago and assumes that every visitor we have here is eager to do the same.”

“‘”Is that what this place is?” asked Rain. “A collection of pilgrims too frightened to go on, like those in Outpost?”

“‘”Not exactly,” replied Algo. “It is more like a collection of lost pilgrims – of those that would proceed, if only they knew the way.”

“‘”I don’t understand. Is this island not like the others? Find the lake at its center, and row to the island within it. That is the way forward.’

“‘Ithma snorted. “There is no lake,” she said. “Not here. There is only Nordma Forest, dim and impenetrable.”

“‘”How many people live here?” I asked.

“‘Ithma and Algo exchanged a puzzled look, as though they had never before contemplated such a question. “A little more than a dozen, perhaps,” said Algo. “The number changes.”

“‘”Have you an inn? Or somewhere we might rest tonight?” For our Common Enemy was bathing the island in corroded twilight, and I feared that if we continued our trek that evening, we might be forced to spend the night in the dread forest of which Ithma had spoken.

“‘”Indeed we do!” replied Algo excitedly. “We have an empty house that we keep ready for visitors. There is a charge for its use, however.”

“‘”What price do you ask?” said Rain.

“‘”That you dine with us,” said Ithma with a mischievous grin. “And regale us with tales of your pilgrimage, and of gentle Route 14, for which our hearts ache.”‘”

I do not know whether she spoke in jest.

“‘”That is a fee that we are happy to afford,” I replied, smiling in turn.

“‘”Excellent!’ cried Algo. “Follow me, then. Ithma, go and tell the others. We will dine in the banquet hall tonight. An hour after the sun sets.”

“‘And so we followed Algo down one dirt road, then another. Along the way we saw a woman in a hut, adding powder to a fuming caldron. She waved amicably as we passed. A moment later we crossed paths with an old man stooped over his cane. He bowed and his face wrinkled around a toothless smile, and he croaked something unintelligible that Algo assured us was a friendly greeting. Finally we came to a large house built from logs and pitch that seemed sturdier and newer than the other structures in the village, and Algo opened its door and ushered us through.

“‘”I trust,” he said, “that you will find these accommodations to your liking. There is fresh water in –”

“‘At that moment a young man emerged from the room beyond us, carrying a burlap sack over his shoulders. He was dressed in spotless white robes, and his eyes were turned to the floor.

“‘”My apologies,” he said, his voice barely audible. “I was just changing the linens for our guests.”

“‘I thought I saw anger flicker across Algo’s face, but it dissolved into a smile. “Thank you, Ember,” he said, and he clapped the young man’s back congenially as Ember shuffled around us and out of the house.

“‘”Well,” continued Algo, “I was about to tell you that there is fresh water in the kitchen and clean linens in the bedroom. But it seems young Ember beat me to it.”

“‘”About that,” remarked Rain. “How did he know we were coming? To change out the linens?”

“‘Algo laughed. “He didn’t. Not really. He changes the linens every week, about this time. He must have seen us approaching and thought to personalize his explanation. Serendipitous timing, is all.”

“‘With that, Algo left us, promising to return after gloaming to escort us to the banquet hall, where we would compensate our innkeepers in the previously agreed-upon currency of stories and gossip.

“‘The house was something out of a frontier romance novel, redolent of milled cedar and alive with flickering lamplight. We made love on the carpet we’d walked in on, and the yet-unsettled floorboards moaned and squealed with us. Afterwards we explored the rest of the house. We learned that it was situated on the very edge of the little town, for beyond most of its windows was a dark wood. We found pails of lukewarm water in the bedroom and, unsure of how formal dinner was in this distant place, we bathed and dressed and primped, then lay on the bed until we heard a knock upon the door.

“‘When Algo saw us he offered us each an arm, reciting a string of perfunctory compliments about our hair and our outfits and our jewelry. We reciprocated with our own boilerplate praise, as he too had groomed for the occasion; his beard was trimmed and he wore an impossibly crisp white shirt, and when he drew near I could smell rosewater wafting from his person.

“‘He led us to the banquet hall, where nearly a dozen unfamiliar townsfolk sat alongside Ithma and Ember at an enormous, warbling, live-edge table carved from some exotic species of wood that I couldn’t identify. When we entered the room everyone rose in unison.

“‘Algo thrust bottles into our hands, and before we could thank him – or ask what they contained – an exceptionally tall, red-haired woman standing at the head of the table clapped her hands together and called for silence.

“‘For a long moment she did not speak, and her silence seemed almost a form of starvation. The man next to us licked his lips; the woman beside him salivated. Grumbles erupted from midsections around the room. When she finally spoke, everyone leaned forward and opened their mouths, as if to listen through their tongues.

“‘”This is a special night,” she began. “For we have guests, and when we have guests we celebrate that oldest and most sacred of Nadir’s traditions. Though the liturgy of the tradition has changed in recent years, its purest purpose remains the same as it was a century ago, when our forebears settled here. We will serve our guests two courses: a taste of what awaits them in the wood, followed by a full serving of our experience in that place. And in return they will offer us the story of their pilgrimage thus far, complete with fresh memories of sweet Route 14. So it will be tonight, as it has always been.”

“‘She nodded slowly, glancing around the room, then took her seat. Everyone else did the same, leaving just two unoccupied chairs across from each other at the center of the table. These, we deduced, were meant for us.

“‘Resting atop each guest’s placemat was a small bamboo box, which I assumed contained the first course of our meal. Visions of steamed fish and black rice danced through my famished imagination, but when I reached forward to peek under the lid of the box, an elbow nudged my rib cage. The man to whom it belonged leaned close to me and whispered through a grin: “Patience, friend. Not until we are told.”

“‘”North of Nadir,” boomed the towering woman, “is Nordma Forest. It is an ancient wood, unculled by fire, unabridged by industry, whose canopy has grown so dense over the millennia that it is impregnable even to our Common Enemy. It is a dark and boggy place, full of creatures so aberrantly mutated that a visitor might assume they had fallen to the bottom of an ocean trench or a blue hole. Yet even these fearsome creatures keep a safe distance from Nordma’s most terrifying inhabitant: the Decision Cypress.

“‘”Twisted, black, towering, knotted, peeling, the Decision Cypress is one of the first trees you will encounter on your trek north, for the path through Nordma Forest splits where it grows. Choose one direction and you will return here, to Nadir. Choose the other, and before long you will find yourself standing before another Decision Cypress, with a second choice to make.

“‘”There are fourteen Decision Cypresses in Nordma Forest, and if you take a wrong turn at any one of them, you will dine with us again. From the crease in your brow, I see that you are calculating. Let me save you the trouble. One-half to the fourteenth power is 16,000. There are 16,000 possible routes through Nordma Forest, and only one of them leads somewhere other than here. In other words, your chance of reaching the place that lies beyond Nordma Forest is less than one one-hundredth of one percent.

“‘”You do not look fazed. Not yet. Perhaps you like those odds. Perhaps, you think, you will just have to try the path a thousand times – ten thousand times – however many times it takes until you make fourteen correct choices. But do you really believe that our beloved road would conjure so bedeviling a puzzle only to have you overcome it by dumb, brute force? Of course not; for the Decision Cypresses appear to each pilgrim only once. After that, no matter how many times you return to Nordma Forest, the path you follow will never break. An uncanny physick, I know, but an immutable one nevertheless; for we of Nadir have spent the better part of our lives challenging it to no avail.

“‘”That, friends, is a taste of what is to come. I offer it freely, and I urge you to savor it, to chew on it, for it is a delicacy that few pilgrims ever enjoy.’

“‘Over the course of the woman’s speech I had noticed a pool of light gathering in Rain’s eye, an infant grin tugging at the edge of her lips. I recognized the expression, for I had seen it once on the mouth of a chess player five moves before he checkmated his opponent. It was the smile of a predator, the glint of a dangerous secret left partly unsheathed.

“‘”I have questions,” she said, breaking the ponderous silence that had settled over the room.  “First, what lies beyond the fourteenth Decision Cypress? Beyond Nordma Forest?”

“‘”What else? The end of Recursion Lake,” answered our host. “The return to Route 14.”

“‘”And how many have made it through, since you have been here?”

“‘”Just one,” she said, a little too quickly. “A woman, about your age. But that was a long time ago.”

“‘Rain nodded. “And you say that now, when one of you follows the path north, there are no Decision Cypresses. That they have all disappeared. But what if you keep going anyway? Where does the path lead?”

“‘”It is a loop, back to Nadir.”

“‘”What if you were to depart from the path and cut directly through the forest? Proceeding straight north, say.”

“‘”You do not understand,” replied our host, frowning. “It is all a loop.”

“‘Rain had been ready with another question, but instead of asking it she leaned back in her chair and cast her eyes across the ceiling, suddenly distracted, almost distant, and I wondered if she had perceived something in the woman’s answer that I had not.

“‘The woman at the head of the table shifted her basilisk gaze from Rain’s face to mine. “It would seem your friend is out of questions,” she remarked. “Do you have any?”

“‘”Just one,” I answered. “Who are you?”

“‘”My name is Markova,” she said. “That is all I am, for I have no title and no history. No one in Nadir does. I preside over our banquets only because I made it to the seventh Decision Cypress, which is farther than anyone else here.” She paused for any final questions. When it was clear we had none, she announced: “I believe it is time for our second course.”

“‘As if on cue, each participant removed the lid from his bamboo box and peered inside. One by one they withdrew its contents, which were identical in every case: a small glass snifter, filled with a clear liquid that smelled like strong gin or weak bleach, and a second, smaller bamboo box. This latter item everyone set aside, unopened, while they raised the former in salute.

“‘”This drink,” explained Markova, “is a liquor we have been making in Nadir for nearly a decade, since Pilgrim Brufo attempted his passage through Nordma.”

“‘An old man with a broken nose and skin like secondhand leather bowed slightly, as though he were being recognized for some act of valiance.

“‘”You see,” continued Markova, “Brufo realized that there was no chance he’d make it through Nordma. He knew that he would encounter the Decision Cypresses only once, before they banished him to Nadir for the rest of his life. So he brought an axe and a wheelbarrow into the forest, cutting trophies from each tree that he passed – four in all – until he returned here with his cart buckling under the weight of its payload. The liquor in your glass was distilled from the branches and pulp that Brufo collected. It is a sacrament. It is our eucharist. When we taste it, we relive our sublime, failed odyssey through Nordma, and we celebrate the majesty of the trees from which it came.” Markova stopped speaking, and her lips seemed to quiver. But I was listening closely enough to hear her mutter: “Perhaps it is also a form of revenge.”

“‘Then she lifted her snifter and drained it into her unsteady smile. The others did the same. I stole a glance at Rain, shrugged, and followed suit.

“‘My stomach lurched. I searched for water, or tequila, or battery acid, or anything less vile than the taste metastasizing in my throat. Noticing my discomfort, Algo passed me a second bottle of whatever swill I’d been drinking earlier, and I quaffed it frantically. When the revulsion had passed I lifted my eyes to find the other diners glowering at me as though I’d made a laughingstock of their alien liturgy.

“‘”Now,” proceeded Markova, “for our main course. Each of us will write down the route we chose when we passed through Nordma, along with the explanation behind our choice. We will place these records into our boxes, and give these boxes to our esteemed guests, in the hope that our own decisions – erroneous though they turned out to be – might inform theirs.”

“‘The woman looked from me to Rain, then withdrew a slip of paper and a pencil from the small bamboo box in front of her and began to write. The other citizens of Nadir did the same.

“‘”As I have mentioned already,” she continued as she wrote, “my own path took me to Nordma’s seventh Decision Cypress. It is the farthest anyone here has progressed. Whatever ideas you may have about how to proceed through the forest, you may find it helpful to reconcile them with my own. If they do not at least agree with my first six choices, you will know that you’ve miscalculated. And if any of the other–”

“‘”Stop,” said Rain, interrupting our host. Her smile was all grown up now. “Stop writing. We do not need your help, though we deeply appreciate your offering it. I know the way through Nordma Forest.”

“‘The room gasped. Pencils clattered to the table. Eyeballs doubled in size.

“‘”Are you sure, Rain?” I began. “Surely it couldn’t hurt to at least –”

“‘”Yes,” said Rain. “I am positive. I don’t want any cryptic, half-clever note on a scrap of paper causing me to second-guess myself now.”

“‘I expected a volley of questions, a barrage of objections. Instead Markova laughed, and amusement replaced astonishment on the faces around us.

“‘”Such confidence!” exclaimed our host, clapping her hands. “How long has it been since anyone was so sure of themselves? A year, at least. But so be it – if you would fast, we will not force you to eat. We will conclude our main course early and move on to desert. And that, dear guests, you have graciously offered to serve.”

“‘”We have,” said Rain. “And we will. But I must ask: Is there any real food here? Tess and I have eaten nothing but coconut pulp since yesterday, and we are very hungry.”

“‘”Yes, yes,” said Markova, visibly perturbed. “There will be time enough for food after the meal. Now you must fulfill your obligation in our little ritual. Tell us about how you came to our beloved Route 14, and about your journey from its origin to Recursion Lake. Spare no details, for our patience has no bounds and our curiosity is insatiable.”

“‘And so we told them our story. We were thorough enough to deter their questions and loud enough to drown out the rumble of our stomachs. We spoke, and drank, and spoke some more, until nearly midnight, by which time every detail of our pilgrimage had been laid bare – excepting, of course, the questions posed to us in the Adytum, of which no pilgrim speaks – and then, when there was nothing left to tell, we ate.

“‘The banquet served in Nadir was like nothing we’d ever seen, perhaps the last of its kind on this failed planet. There was wild boar from the forest, fish from the lake, vegetables from local gardens; the spread was so dizzying that, to this very day, I do not know which dish our hosts had drugged.

“‘The last thing I remember, as the reverie of the banquet gave way to skin-tingling dreariness, was Markova’s stentorian voice: “We have come to tonight’s final course. It is, admittedly, not so ancient a tradition as those that have preceded it, for we added it to our ritual only a few years ago, when we discovered a wrinkle in the design of the Nordma Forest. You see, while the Decision Cypresses will never again appear to any one of us, they must appear to you, dear guests. The latter rule trumps the former, and in the event of a paradox, the puzzle resolves it by manifesting the Decision Cypresses rather than by disappearing them. Therefore, when a pilgrim who has previously failed his test accompanies one who has never attempted it, both pilgrims will face the Decision Cypresses. You can see where we’re headed with this, yes? Each of your paths represent a new hope for us; we need only accompany each of you on your trek north. However, we understand that if you were given a choice, you would proceed together, as a single unit. And that simply won’t do, for it would halve our chances at escape. So we have taken the choice away from you. Rain will proceed first, alone, while Tess sleeps off the tranquilizer that is presently slowing her heart. If Rain does not return after fourteen hours, then we will assume she has made it through, and we will follow the instructions that she leaves behind. If she does return, then it’s back to the drawing board, so to speak, before Tess takes her turn.”

“‘I dreamed, after that. And when I woke – if I woke – I had no memory of the events that followed. Rain recounted them to me only recently. This is what she told me.

“‘”You yawned, leaned back, and closed your eyes. I knew that what Markova had said was true – that you’d been drugged – and I was furious. I flew to my feet, toppling the chair behind me, screaming obscenities at the woman, threatening to kill her, to destroy her whole congregation of lapsed pilgrims, to raze it all to the ground. I must have stood there seething and crackling for some five minutes, until my harangue had devolved into a refrain of senseless vitriol, something you might expect from a bullied toddler. All the while Markova and her myrmidons continued to eat, unfazed.

“‘”When I’d run out of breath, Markova said: ‘Your friend is in a deep sleep, nothing more. The drug has no lasting effect and should wear off within a few hours. We will not hurt her if you leave now.’

“‘”‘What?’ I asked, incredulous. It was past midnight, and the banquet hall’s windows might as well have been portholes on a spaceship. ‘I’ll never find my way to Nordma Forest – let alone through it – in this darkness.’

“‘”Everyone smiled at this protestation, as though they’d heard it a hundred times. ‘Just open the door and look at your shoes,’ said Markova. ‘Follow the path underneath them into the forest. It is the same path you followed to Nadir, and it is the only true path in Recursion Lake. I sincerely hope that it leads you in a single direction. For your sake, and for ours.’

“‘”Algo rose to his feet beside me, and I stepped away instinctively, balling my hands into fists. He inversed my own gesture, opening his palms slowly and raising them to his sides, indicating that he intended no harm. ‘I was about to make coffee,’ he explained. ‘That’s all. Would you like some?’

“‘”I was about to decline, to rattle off some clumsy retort about what sinister agent he might have mixed with the creamer, when it occurred to me that I’d likely be awake until dawn. So I suppressed my rage and nodded at Algo, then returned to my chair.

“‘”There I sat quietly for some time, hardly moving. If Markova said anything, I never heard it. I just rested, sipping coffee, watching you drool, watching the others vibrate. And I thought. I thought about what they might do to you after I left. I thought about what I might do to them. And the more I thought, the less I worried. The crux of the matter was this: that I alone knew the way through Nordma Forest –”‘”

Just as you should, if you’ve been paying any attention.

“‘”– and that the citizens of Nadir would sooner slaughter each other than lift a finger against she who would deliver them from exile. Having arrived at this conclusion, I picked up a pencil, scribbled fourteen letters onto a slip of paper, folded it, and stood.

“‘”‘I won’t be coming back this way,’ I announced, pointing to the note I’d written. ‘Ask Tess to follow those instructions, and she will lead you out of this place. I will wait for her beyond the fourteenth fork, wherever that might be. If any of you arrive there without Tess, or if I find that you have harmed her in any way, then I will bring your pilgrimage to an abrupt end, and you will spend your last few seconds on Route 14 wishing you’d never left this village. I promise you that.’

“‘”There was nothing left for me to say to Nadir’s jilted castaways, nor anything for them to say to me. So I walked out of the banquet hall and followed the path away from Nadir’s flickering gaslights and into a bank of arboreal shadows that swayed and whistled in the breeze like drunk sailors.

“‘”The path wriggled and corkscrewed through Nordma Forest, a desperate excavation away from civilization and into the unquiet dark. Though it was flanked by towering hardwoods and lumbering shadows, nothing obstructed it. No felled branch. No errant rock. Even the unseen predators snapping twigs underfoot somewhere behind me dared not cross its threshold. Only I had been foolish enough to do that.

“‘”Yet a moment later, I was stopped in my tracks. Something had punched a hole into the sky ahead of me, true black against the star-tarnished, off-black canvas of the night. A tree in negative space, a million omitted branches fingering up into the firmament as though a swarm of ants had tunneled in the wrong direction. I tried to follow a single phantom limb past its splits and intersections, but my eyes could not stay the course; they inevitably leapt onto some other tendril, then to another, and nothing ever ended.

“‘”If you have never seen a Decision Cypress, then it is impossible for you to understand the combination of revulsion and reverence that it evokes. We have a habit of anthropomorphizing our gods, but if there is a deity in this universe then it must be more flora than fauna; unmoving and impenetrable and utterly dispassionate, with as much respect for our sense of continuity as the Escher-like foliage that snuffed out the stars that night over Nordma. All at once I understood the ritual that Markova had overseen in Nadir; the strange, vengeful pleasure she’d enjoyed after sipping that foul liquor. I grasped – even, briefly, appreciated – Brufo’s barbaric dismemberment of the Decision Cypresses he’d encountered, and then I nearly vomited at the very same thought, of that weathered old man savaging something so supernal.

“‘”It was a long night in Nordma. Every Decision Cypress was the same, yet each commanded a gravity so intense that I could not pull away until I’d stood under it for what seemed like hours, neck craned and mouth agog, studying the same uncanny details over and over without advancing my understanding of them. Looking back, I believe that I must have spent two or three nights in Nordma Forest, but that those nights transpired in direct succession, for the sun never broke the horizon. It was as though all the celestial clockwork had stopped – as if someone had forgotten to wind the dial – until I’d made my fourteenth decision.

“‘”Only then did daylight bleed into the universe, a trickle at first, then an open wound, and it revealed that the forest was thinning, the ground was hardening. I followed the path until I could no longer distinguish it from the ambient landscape, and when I looked up from where I’d lost it, I saw that the sun had vaulted to its summit and was blistering the world below.

“‘”I began to wonder whether my fourteenth decision had been the wrong one, and whether Nordma Forest had, as an act of mercy toward a pilgrim who had made it so far only to bungle her endgame, elected to cremate me in a desert rather than entomb me in Nadir. Nevertheless I marched forward, recalling the path, attempting to match its trajectory. There were creosote bushes and brittlebrush at first, but before long they turned grey and leafless, then vanished altogether, replaced by clay so hard and hot that the air over it began to blur.

“‘”At some point I began to hallucinate. The cracks in the earth widened to gulfs, and I was standing on Route 14 in the Adytum where it crosses over the chasm. Then I was leaving Midway Motel, teetering on the threshold of its back door, staring out over the Valve. My skin seared. My sweat boiled. My knees buckled. I fell more times than I can remember, but each time I managed to avoid the rifts that kept opening in the desert floor.

“‘”The celestial machinists balanced their scale; I endured three days in the Blight, but the sun never set. It soon will, though. Now that Route 14 has deposited me in this strange place, with all of you. Now that you have heard my story. The sun will set, and the flow of time will right itself. Such is the power of a story that begins at one point and ends at another.

“‘”Except that my story isn’t quite that, is it? This is a hard place, yes, meant for harder people than I.”

“‘But it will not end me.’

I am not finished.

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